What Can Be Done to Counter 'Forever Chemicals' in Rainwater? – Northeastern University

Rainwater contaminated by toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is now a global problem, according to new research published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The Stockholm University study found that levels of PFAS contamination are so persistent and widespread that even the most sparsely populated regions of the world, such as Antarctica and the Tibetan plateau, contained levels of the toxic “forever chemicals” that surpassed even the most “stringent” existing guidelines, the authors said. 

“There is nowhere on Earth where the rain would be safe to drink, according to the measurements that we have taken,” Ian Cousins, a professor at the university and lead author of the study, said recently. 

PFAS forever chemicals, so named because they do not easily degrade, accumulate in the body once ingested, potentially leading to a range of health problems.

headshot of phil brown outside
Phil Brown, director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute and university distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The news is sure to place a burden on water suppliers, says Phil Brown, university distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences and director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern.

“Drinking and municipal water suppliers are going to have a very hard time figuring out what to do with this,” he says. 

The report comes after the Environmental Protection Agency announced new health advisories for PFAS in June as part of the Biden administration’s strategic plan to deliver more clean water to U.S. communities. Those advisories, which Brown says are different from regulatory caps, were lowered after the chemicals were found to be associated with “reduced immune system response to childhood vaccines.”

“These are thousands of times lower than what we’ve had so far—and they aren’t regulatory,” he says. “But they are part of the pathway of getting regulatory and maximum contaminant levels.”

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But, Brown says, in all likelihood “no one is going to be able to meet” these new levels. 

“What it does do is it puts people on alert that there are actual health effects—even at these lower levels,” Brown says. 

The report also comes amid new research published in JHEP Reports that found that high levels of PFAS exposure is linked to increased risk of liver cancer, or non-viral hepatocellular carcinoma. One particular chemical subset of PFAS, called perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, is strongly connected to the disease.


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